- - Monday, May 7, 2018


In recent years, opinions about free speech and academic freedom have fallen squarely along party lines — especially with regard to private, religious schools.

Conservatives have defended the right of private institutions to adhere to their doctrinal commitments and craft health care policies, hiring practices and course content that aligns with that vision. Liberals, for their part, have seen such practices and policies as a thinly veiled form of discrimination and have urged the government to intervene at these institutions.

A recent situation at Wisconsin’s Marquette University, however, has complicated that divide a good deal. John McAdams, a tenured professor of political science, was suspended after public comments made about a graduate instructor who had silenced classroom criticism of gay marriage. He sued, lost, and then appealed to the state’s highest court, which has now taken up the case. It is being closely watched because, as The Federalist’s David Marcus observes, “the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a chance to send a clear message to university administrators that academic freedom will be defended by the courts.”

The fact of the matter is that it’s not quite so clear-cut as that. Conservatives may well be inclined to side with Mr. McAdams because of shared social values and hope that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will rule in his favor. But before they leap to his defense, they must consider the full complexities of the situation and the precedent that it will set for future incidents at other institutions.

To begin with, Marquette is not simply a university. Nor is it merely a private university. It is a Catholic and, more specifically, a Jesuit university. While this might make it all the more strange that Mr. McAdams was dismissed for comments ostensibly intended to defend Catholic teaching on marriage, it does significantly complicate matters. Most obviously, it raises the question of whether First Amendment speech protections apply at a private, religious university in the same way they would at a public institution.

Less obvious, but more tangled, is the question of Marquette’s motive. Court documents filed in Mr. McAdam’s behalf, for example, regularly describe him as the victim of a stifling campus orthodoxy. The reference here is not to the theological orthodoxy of the church, however, but the social orthodoxy of “political correctness.”

Many of Marquette’s critics believe this orthodoxy has become so entrenched on campus that it actively undermines the university’s Catholic mission and values. Mr. McAdams himself has been blunt on this point. If gay marriage cannot be discussed critically in the classroom, he wrote in the original post that precipitated his removal, Marquette is “certainly not a Catholic university.”

Unsurprisingly, Marquette sees things differently. Indeed, from the university’s perspective it was Mr. McAdams who transgressed the institution’s Jesuit values. This was the unanimous conclusion of the Faculty Hearing Committee that initially reviewed the case, and it is why university President Michael Lovell made Mr. McAdams‘ return to the classroom conditional on acknowledging that his actions had been “incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University.”

Nor is Marquette alone in holding this view. In a friend of the court brief, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) argues that Marquette is defined by “faith-based principles,” guided by the “mission and values of Jesuit education,” and “conscientiously applied these values” in reaching its decision concerning Mr. McAdams.

The “core value” in this instance is the Jesuit principle of cura personalis (care of the person), explained as the obligation of those in positions of authority to care for each member of the community. According to the AJCU, Mr. McAdams‘ lawsuit is essentially asking the secular judiciary “to override a religious institution’s assessments meant to insure protection of its mission” and to impose one man’s “views of how this faith-based educational institution should carry out its mission.”

In this light, it is especially curious that conservatives — traditionally keen to defend the liberties not only of religions institutions, but of the whole panoply of voluntary associations that stand between the individual and the state — have so reflexively sided with Mr. McAdams.

It is perhaps even more ironic that the Thomas More Society, known especially for its defense of the freedom of religious institutions, has filed a brief in his behalf. The Society’s namesake is of course the 16th-century Tudor statesman famously executed for his refusal to endorse the state’s imposition of a single man’s views on the church and its institutions.

It is, to be sure, entirely possible that Marquette is mistaken about its mission as a Catholic university. It is entirely possible that the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities misunderstands the “Jesuit values” that inform and animate that mission. That would still make it no more wise or prudent — or conservative — to invite the secular state to dismiss, discern or define the mission and values by which a private, religious institution is guided and governed.

Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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